Relentless: leadership lessons from Sean Dyche, manager Burnley FC

Burnley moved five points clear in second place in the Championship on Saturday, beating fellow promotion hopefuls Derby County 2-0 to extend their unbeaten run in the league to 11 matches, and complete a full calendar year unbeaten at home.

With a league record of Pl33 W18 D12 L3, Burnley has sustained a place in the Championship’s top three since September. It’s a tight knit squad, Burnley have used the least number of players in the division with only 18 starting league games. While the squad is small, manager Sean Dyche believes their togetherness and group mentality will play a massive part in their ability to continue to compete for promotion.

What Dyche doesn’t state is the significant impact he has had on the squad – with just one player added for a fee of £750k to the team that finished 14th last season, conceding 1.3 goals per game. This time round the team has let in just 26 goals in 33 games to date, and just for good measure, last season’s top scorer Charlie Austin left for QPR for £4m four days before the season started. The Turf Moor crowd have given Dyche the accolade ‘Ginger Mourinho’, although he’s known not to like the tribute.

Sean Dyche played a total of 460 football league games. Perhaps his most famous game was an FA Cup semi-final against Middlesbrough, when Middlesbrough won despite Chesterfield scoring a legitimate goal that was over the line, but decreed it hadn’t. It robbed Chesterfield of a Cup Final appearance, as they lost the replay 0-3.

Dyche won promotion with four clubs as a player, maybe this is his time as a manager. He is developing his own clear style. There have been tracksuit-clad tyrants such as former Forest boss Brian Clough, urbane intellectuals like Arsenal coach Arsène Wenger, and ego-centrics such as Mourinho, a polyglot sophistication and a taste for the theatrical.

Dyche is methodical in his trade, articulate and intelligent in his analysis and communication, respectful to the opposition and has an enthusiasm for research with a learner’s mentality – a powerful combination for an effective manager. Having studied his interviews, watched him closely at home and away matches, and assessed his impact at Burnley, here are my thoughts on Dyche’s management principles we can take into business.

1. A balanced management team Dyche’s management team of Ian Woan, Tony Loughlan, Billy Mercer and Mark Howard are all different. That makes for a good process because if everyone gives the same answers, or you have yes-men, then you never get a better outcome. Dyche uses his management team proactively on match day, they are as animated and engaged, he works closely on the touchline with his team, constantly observing, pointing out and engaging with them to highlight areas for improvement. Attention to detail and in the moment creates a focus.

Dyche says, All give a different opinion and we’ve all got different ideas, whether it’s training, planning, team preparation, or on players. So we all throw them about as wisely as we can then, of course, it’s up to me to make the end decision, but it’s nice to have that support system of a staff that is very honest and very open with their opinions, in order to get the best outcome we can.

2. Who cares wins. There is no denying the phenomenal passion that Dyche has for football and for Burnley. It’s a simple truth but one that is often forgotten – the very best leaders acre deeply about what they do. As Apple founder Steve Jobs said: the only way tobe truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work, and the only way to do great work is to love what you do.

3. Maximum effort is the minimum requirement Dyche has transformed the Clarets into a well respected side, as a result of a high-performance cocktail of an ultra-dedicated backroom team, meticulous planning, and a team willing to go that extra yard with one of Dyche’s favourite sayings as their backbone: maximum effort is the minimum requirement. From that, you can see the organisation, commitment, spirit and determination that makes the whole much greater than the sum of the parts.

Dyche said I had a chat with each of them individually and made it clear what I wanted. The demands were laid out openly. It was about mentality, fitness levels, how we were going to play as a team and how each individual was going to contribute. I want to believe it is possible – I always trust my work.

4. Connect with individuals Dyche consciously takes time to connect with every member of his organisation as individuals – from first team players to office staff – to get to know them personally, and understand their different drives and ambitions. This enables him to judge the true mood of the group and tailor his communication to each person individually.

Dyche has personally mentored and supported a number of players this season who have transformed their performances such that they are having the best season of their careers – Sam Vokes, Keith Treacy and Scott Arfield are the obvious picks in an over-achieving team.

Dyche has a sense of purpose and determination derived from his passion, but with a deep vein of humanity and treating people with genuine interest. I watched a video of him in a training session. He was encouraging Keith Treacy, watching him closely. Treacy stuck at it – Decent Keith, decent! encouraged Dyche, followed by a celebratory Champagne! accolade from Dyche as Treacy produced an outstanding piece of skill. As Treacy acclaims, Dyche is capable of connecting with you individually and changing your mentality.

5. Be the man that makes the difference Another of Dyche’s sayings which resonates. His shaven-headed, physically imposing presence belies a sophisticated approach to the game. I know how to treat injured players. I don’t go in and say: ‘are you fit yet?’ That’s acid. You don’t want to hear that from a manager. I just say: ‘How are you feeling? Keep going.’ 

Our players don’t walk off the coach with their headphones around their neck. They are smart in and out of the building. I’m a humble lad with good morals from my parents. Work hard. If you have to clean the floor, make it the cleanest floor ever.

More than anything, it seems Dyche greatest talent is selling his players on the importance of putting the team before the individual as a core responsibility. He’s got the remarkable ability to merge individual talent as a team rather than being dazzled by individual brilliance.

6. Strong at home, strong at work This communicates a man with a strong attachment to his family. I have no doubt he is great father, husband and brother as much as he is a great manager. There is no point in being successful everywhere else and failing to be a hero to your own family. A strong family builds a strong support structure and ensures a stable and focused mind. Dyche often talks about his brothers, and his family ethic.

This underpins Dyche’s broader model of man-management that shuns the old-school approach of haranguing people for bad performance, and instead treats his team as an extension of his family. The loyalty and devotion he shows to his players is met in kind. He’s a master at instilling belief into those he himself believes in. People talk about transformational leadership, Dyche portrays a confident leader, whether or not he’s actually feeling pressurised, who is able to make a difference to the situation.

7. Open Mindedness Dyche attributes Burnley’s success on open-mindedness and freeing his side from fear. Dyche has made open-mindedness a mantra, encouraging it from his players and employing the term frequently at press conferences. Once they have done the basics, they have the freedom to play. They are encouraged to do that and it enhances what they can offer as individuals. I think these players can achieve whatever they want to. It’s about being open-minded. They know they’re organised, they know they’re fit enough and it allows them that mental clarity to go for the performances.

If you don’t believe in yourself, you should not expect anyone to believe in you. You have to trust your own decisions and have faith in your own abilities. Often self-confidence is misconstrued for arrogance, an overbearing, excessive opinion of one’s self. Dyche’s approach is more about valuing and respecting your own perspective, and being the best you can be.

8. Pride When Dyche took the job, he said, They asked me what was the thing I remembered most about Burnley after playing here. I noticed there were always Burnley shirts around the town. You would drive through the town and there would be shirts everywhere. There is an obvious connection between people and the club. It’s a good old-fashioned trait that the people genuinely support the club. Dyche has used the bond – our town, our turf, our team – to build a strong connection between the team and the fans, a sense of responsibility that the team has for wearing the shirt and representing the town, and the fans. It’s become tribal.

9. Look after your team Dyche has eased down the physical hands-on coaching, he looks more at players’ body language. Are they up or down? Are they ready? He monitors players and staff. You have to know players as people, know their quirks. I can almost smell their mood. I call it ‘horse whispering’. I watch them, then pop around after training, ask them if they’re OK. I tell them: ‘Well done Saturday, different class.’ I read ‘The Horse Whisperer’. If that can apply to a horse, with all due respect to a horse, it must apply to humans. Treat them correctly, respectfully. I ask their thoughts. They open up.

Perhaps one of the worst impacts of the economic downturn has been the growing tendency to pass the buck, managers attempting to safeguard or promote their own ambitions, ahead of the wider goals of their team or the company they work for. For Dyche, it’s all about the team and there is no question that he inspires fierce devotion in his players. In many ways his large but understated persona ensures that he is a dominant figure. He takes the pressure off his team, as he becomes a bigger focus than the players.

At a time when many managers are loather to go beyond the corporate soundbite, the power of a genuine, passionate and honest figurehead should not be underestimated.

10. Winning is a mentality.  It’s a great feeling when you look into their faces in the tunnel before kick-off and know how hard they are going to go to win.  I was promoted four times with four different clubs and that same level of respect and honesty was there each time. I can feel that with these Burnley players. It’s not about the money, but the glory of winning.

If you believe you can, or can’t, both ways, you are right, Henry Ford said. Dyche sets high standards for himself and believes in a winning mindset. Watching Burnley play under Dyche is like watching hungry lionesses pouncing their prey. They show zeal, hunger and unquenchable thirst to emerge the best.

You should not be okay with average. As Michelangelo says, our biggest tragedy is that we set low goals and achieve them.

11. Learner’s mentality I tell the players I’ve had my time as a player but I now have a chance of making you better. My job is to guide them. For my Pro-licence, I went and studied the Oxford University Boat Race and I use snippets from there to inspire my players. I got down to the boathouse at 5.45am and the lads were there. They have these ergo rowing machines, set up facing a wall with a blackboard.

Written in chalk is ‘Boat Race’ the start time and date. They all face that. I loved that. ‘That’s where we are going’. Those rowers want to be part of history. They don’t get money. In the Oxford boathouse, there’s this meeting room with massive boards all the way round containing the names of all the people who have been in the boat. They are desperate to get on there. I’ve said to the players, Burnley is a founder member of the Football League, a heritage to respect. You can make your own Burnley history this year, be relentless, be limitless in your performance.

Ask me the secret of Dyche’s success so far this season, and I will say it is his honesty, simplicity in his communication, and the empathy he has for his players.  Last season 79 points won Hull promotion, today Burnley has 66 points from 33 games with 13 remaining.  April sees the centenary of Burnley’s 1914 FA Cup final win, our only cup win, what a double celebration we could have! Our town, our turf, our team, our time, with Dyche’s management framework getting us there:

  • Maximum effort is the minimum requirement
  • Be the man that makes the difference
  • Be relentless, be limitless

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